How to Deal

Set Boundaries to Stop Lunchtime Distractions

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 16, 2007; 9:00 AM

I like to eat lunch at my desk instead of leaving the office or in the lunch room. I like to catch up on things such as studying for my night classes, reading the newspaper online and paying bills. I'm continually interrupted, however, by my boss and co-workers who need me to do work or answer questions.

They should be able to tell that I am "at lunch" because I am eating and doing something non-work related. What is a polite way to ask them to follow-up with me after my lunch break? I don't want to come off hostile.

To guarantee that you are not interrupted, eat your lunch elsewhere. Try logging on at a computer terminal away from your desk or taking a laptop to the local Starbucks.

If this is not possible, however, here are some further thoughts: Do not assume that your boss or co-workers can tell that you're at lunch simply because you are eating. Many people choose to eat lunch at their desk to catch up on work, so you need to be more explicit about your preferences.

Address the issue ahead of time by telling your co-workers and manager that you like to use your lunch break to take care of personal business at your desk. You can politely let them know that you'd prefer to be interrupted only for emergency projects or questions.

In the case of your supervisor, don't just explain what you plan to do, but be sure to ask if it is permissible.

If you work in a cube or in an open floor plan, it can be difficult to establish these boundaries. Without the ability to close an office door, everyone can see that you're there and nobody has to knock to talk to you. If someone does interrupt you, gently remind them that you're eating lunch, then ask if you can follow up when you are "back at work" at a designated time.

And you can always have a little fun with the absurdity of the situation. I've seen employees hang an out to lunch sign on the outside of their cube or on their chair indicating when they'll return. If people in your workplace have a sense of humor, they will accept this as a friendly reminder that you are trying to take advantage of your personal time.

Join Lily for How to Deal Live on Wednesday, August 22 at 11 a.m. ET.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail lilymgarcia@gmail.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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